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The wrath of grapes: A tale of 12 dead microwaves and plasma-spewing grapes

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 10:00pm

Enlarge / Not just for grapes: plasma formed between a pair of hydrogel beads irradiated in a household microwave oven. (credit: Hamza K. Khattak)

DIY science enthusiasts know that, if you put a halved grape into a microwave with just a bit of skin connecting the halves, it'll produce sparks and a fiery plume of ionized gas known as a plasma. There are thousands of YouTube videos documenting the effect. But the standard explanation offered for why this occurs isn't quite right, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And its authors only needed to destroy a dozen microwaves to prove it.

"Many microwaves were in fact harmed during the experiments," admitted co-author Hamza Khattak of Trent University in Canada. "At one point, we had a microwave graveyard in the lab before disposing of the many early iterations in electronic waste."

Co-author Aaron Slepkov first became interested in the phenomenon when, as an undergraduate in 1995, he noticed there was no formal (i.e., scientifically rigorous and peer-reviewed) explanation for how the plasma was being generated. Once he'd finished his PhD and established his own research group at Trent University, he started doing his own experiments (microwaving grapes for science) with one of his undergraduate students. They used thermal imaging and computer simulations of both grapes and hydrogel beads in their experiments.

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Niantic poised to settle Pokémon Go trespassing complaints

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 9:15pm

Enlarge (credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

A proposed settlement filed last week could give homeowners some control over whether or not Pokémon Go's augmented-reality attractions show up in and around their property.

Shortly after its launch in the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go developer Niantic started fielding numerous complaints about players trespassing on private property to access location-dependent Gyms and Pokéstops in the augmented-reality game. Those complaints eventually developed into numerous lawsuits alleging that Niantic was essentially encouraging trespassing by placing its digital attractions on their property.

Those lawsuits were consolidated into a class action by August, and after winding through the courts for years (and surviving a motion to dismiss), that class-action suit now seems on the verge of a settlement. A proposal filed by the plaintiffs in district court last week (as noted by The Hollywood Reporter) outlines a number of ways Niantic apparently plans to solve this problem.

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Facebook is a law-breaking “digital gangster,” UK government report says

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 8:14pm

Enlarge (credit: Getty Images | NurPhoto )

Facebook yesterday said it is willing to face "meaningful regulation" after UK lawmakers accused the company of acting like a "digital gangster" that has knowingly violated laws and helped spread Russian misinformation during elections.

A House of Commons committee that oversees media policy chastised Facebook in a report on "disinformation and 'fake news.'"

"Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law," the report said.

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With elections weeks away, someone “sophisticated” hacked Australia’s politicians

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 8:00pm

Enlarge / Just over a week after the announcement of a cyber-attack on Australia's Parliament House, the government now says three Australian political parties weer also attacked by a "sophisticated state actor." (credit: Getty Images)

With elections just three months away, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on February 18 that the networks of the three major national political parties had been breached by what Australian security officials described as a "sophisticated state actor."

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that while the attack bears hallmarks of tools and techniques used by China-sponsored hacking groups in the past, security officials were concerned that the attackers may have used such approaches as part of a "false-flag" attack—like what is believed to have occurred in the case of the "Olympic Destroyer" attack on last year's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Morrison said that the Australian government had made moves to "ensure the integrity of our electoral system," including instructing the Australian Cyber Security Centre "to be ready to provide any political party or electoral body in Australia with immediate support, including making their technical experts available." Electoral commissions and state and territory security agencies have been briefed on the attacks, and the Cyber Security Centre has also passed along malware samples and other information to "global anti-virus companies," the Prime Minister noted.

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If you call this firm a “patent troll,” it might sue for defamation

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 7:55pm

Enlarge / These trolls, once pretty profitable. (credit: Tomi Knuutila)

We're not going to say that Automated Transactions LLC is a "patent troll," but several others have. The American Bankers Association has called ATL a troll. The Credit Union National Association called ATL a troll—they even illustrated the accusation with a picture of a troll. Individual lawyers, legal commentators, and banks have all described ATL as a troll.

Inventor and ATL founder David Barcelou got so fed up with people labeling his firm a patent troll that he sued about a dozen individuals and organizations for libel in 2016. Last year, a New Hampshire state judge dismissed Barcelou's lawsuit.

And on Thursday, February 14, the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether to overrule the lower court's decision and allow the lawsuit to move forward.

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Japanese utility makes first contact with melted Fukushima fuel

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 7:23pm

Late last week, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) sent a probe into the damaged second reactor at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The probe's mission was to explore the solidity of the nuclear fuel that melted back in 2011, when a tsunami hit the nuclear plant following an earthquake, causing a meltdown of the plant's three reactors.

Eight years later, TEPCO is making slow but steady progress toward decommissioning the three damaged reactors. The mission to touch the melted nuclear fuel with a remote-controlled probe aimed to find out how solid the melted fuel is and whether it could be transported away from the site. This was the first time that field crews had been able to use any device to physically interact with the fuel since the reactor meltdown.

"The observation device made contact with deposits at six locations on the pedestal," TEPCO wrote in a short preliminary report that was published on Friday. "Deposits in five locations could be moved." TEPCO posted a video, which can be found here, of the robotic probe picking up pieces of melted nuclear fuel.

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Netflix makes it official, canceling Punisher and Jessica Jones

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 7:10pm

Enlarge / Farewell to the last Defenders standing: Jessica Jones and The Punisher have been officially canceled by Netflix. (credit: YouTube/Allowit)

It was only a matter of time, but today Netflix finally made it official, announcing the cancelation of its two remaining Marvel Defenders series, The Punisher and Jessica Jones. The latter's third season hasn't even aired yet, although Deadline Hollywood reports that Netflix will air season 3 as planned. Nobody who has followed the axing of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Daredevil over the last few months was expecting The Punisher to get a third season, even though season 2 was an under-appreciated gem.

Punisher star Jon Bernthal—who is set to join New Line’s The Sopranos prequel feature—gave a fitting farewell on Instagram: "To all who have served. All who know loss. All who love and understand Frank and his pain. It has been an honor to walk in his boots. I’m endlessly grateful to the comic fans and the men and women of the Armed Services and law enforcement community who Frank means so much to. Thank you to the USMC and all the wonderful soldiers who trained me. Go Hard. Be safe."

UPDATE: Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter weighs in with her own Instagram post: a pic of the table read for the season 3 finale airing later this year. "I love these people to the moon and back," she wrote. "It has been a dream to play Jessica alongside my amazing cast and the best crew in the business for these past five years. I am so grateful for every second of it. We have THE BEST fans. You guys mean the world to me and I appreciate you beyond words. The final season ... is coming later this year and I am proud of how we complete JJ’s journey."

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Google partially backtracks on Chrome changes that would break ad blockers

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 6:35pm

Google has said that it will revise the proposed changes to Chrome's extension API that would have broken or reduced the functionality of a wide range of ad-blocking extensions, to ensure that the current variety of content-blocking extensions is preserved. The initial plans generated a wide backlash from both the developers and users of those extensions, but Google maintains that "It is not, nor has it ever been, our goal to prevent or break content blocking" [emphasis Google's] and says that it will work to update its proposal to address the capability gaps and pain points.

The advertising company is planning an overhaul of its extension interface to, among other things, increase user privacy, make it harder for extensions to perform malicious actions, and make the browser's performance more consistent. Together, this work is documented as Manifest V3.

One of these changes in particular had grave consequences for ad blockers. Currently, ad blockers make extensive use of an API named webRequest. This API allows extensions to examine every single network request made by a page and either modify it (to, for example, redirect it to a different address or add or remove cookies), block it altogether, or allow it to continue unhindered. This has both a substantial privacy impact (an extension can see and steal your cookies and hence masquerade as you) and, Google said, some performance impact, as every single network request (of which there may be dozens in a single page) has to wait for the extension to perform its analysis.

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Facebook security app used to 'spy' on competitors

BBC Technology News - February 18, 2019 - 6:28pm
A cross-party group of MPs says Facebook used its Onavo app to gather information on competitors.

YouTube backtracks after Pokemon 'child abuse' ban

BBC Technology News - February 18, 2019 - 5:39pm
Google backtracks after "mistakenly" deleting YouTubers for "sexual content involving minors".

A 5km asteroid may briefly occult the brightest star in the night sky

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 4:38pm

Enlarge / An artist's impression showing the binary star system of Sirius A and its diminutive blue companion, Sirius B. (credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon)

Sirius, a binary system, is the brightest star in the night sky. The larger of the two stars, Sirius A, is about 25 times more luminous than the Sun, and Sirius is relatively nearby, at less than 9 light years from our Solar System.

On Monday night, for a few areas of South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, Sirius will probably briefly disappear. This will occur as a small asteroid passes in front of the star, occulting it for up to 1.6 seconds, according to the International Occultation Timing Association. (Yes, the acronym is IOTA).

In this case, the asteroid 4388 Jürgenstock will have an apparent diameter just an iota bigger than Sirius. The angular diameter of the asteroid is about 0.007 arcseconds (an arcsecond is 1/3,600th of a degree of the night sky), whereas the angular diameter of Sirius is 0.006 arcseconds. Thus, as the asteroid passes in front of Sirius, the star will briefly dim, perhaps completely, before quickly brightening again. Sirius may appear to blink once, slowly.

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HP Elitebook x360 1040 G5 review: A little bit bigger, a little bit better

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 4:08pm

Enlarge / Wow, many book, so elite. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

The battle of the business notebooks is in full swing as HP tries to one-up Lenovo—and itself—all in one go. HP scored a winner with an updated 13-inch Elitebook x360 it released last year. Now it's full-speed ahead with the new Elitebook x360 1040 G5, the newest version of HP's 14-inch business notebook. The 13-inch model is smaller and lighter overall, but HP offers upgraded features in this larger convertible and promises a 14-inch display in a 13-inch chassis.

We liked the 13-inch Elitebook x360, so I was looking to answer a few questions in testing the Elitebook x360 1040: Does it succeed in all the ways its 13-inch counterpart did? Is it better than the smaller option? And did HP create a device that can dethrone Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 laptops and convertibles as the kings of commercial ultrabooks? Let's find out.

Look and feel

HP is pushing the fact that the Elitebook x360 1040 fits a 14-inch screen in a 13-inch chassis. That's impressive, but it also means that the company didn't change much about the convertible's external design. The same brushed aluminum coloring covers the entire laptop, accented only by diamond-cut edges that appear shiny and sharp when they catch the light. The metal hinges have a slightly curved, rectangular shape to them, allowing the screen to swivel 360 degrees from laptop to tent to tablet mode.

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Dealmaster: All the best Presidents’ Day tech deals we can find

Ars Technica - February 18, 2019 - 3:58pm

Enlarge / Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon is on sale for Presidents' Day. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Greetings, Arsians! The Dealmaster is back with another holiday deals roundup. This time we're coming at you with a wide range of Presidents' Day sales, because George Washington was definitely thinking of what 4K TV deals he could score as he was crossing the Delaware.

Kidding. But Presidents' Day—or Washington's Birthday, which, fun fact, does not occur on Washington's actual birthday—has, like most holidays, become an excuse for retailers to push discounts on all sorts of items in their inventory. Many of these deals apply to things like home goods, clothing, and mattresses, but tech is fairly well represented, too.

Per usual, a lot of these sales are junk, but the Dealmaster has rounded up a sampling of the worthwhile tech deals currently available around the Web. Our list includes discounts on Amazon and Apple devices, 4K Roku TVs, big-name video games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Marvel's Spider-Man, Lenovo ThinkPads, a sitewide 15% off coupon at Rakuten, and much more. Have a look for yourself below.

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The Complicated Economy of Open Source Software

Slashdot - February 18, 2019 - 3:45pm
Categories: Geek, Opinion

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